World Premiere: Astronomers Capture a Nova’s Full Lifetime

2020 is another year for which space exploration provides plenty of exciting discoveries. We’ve seen the Lyrid meteor shower, peculiar exoplanets, the final preparations for a new telescope, Einstein’s theory of relativity proved right once more, and so on. But as the Universe may have infinite proportions, so do the wonders it harbors.

A group of astronomers using the BRITE (BRIght Target Explorer) Constellation of nanosatellites managed to witness, for the first time ever, the entire lifetime of a nova. The nova studied is the one called V906.

How do novas work

To understand how great the discovery is, we first should understand how a nova actually works. This type of cosmic object appears in a close binary star system. One of the two stars goes through its red giant phase, leaving behind a remnant white dwarf.

When the newly formed white dwarf and the other star become close enough, the gravity of the white dwarf draws material from the other star. Thus, a star becomes far brighter than before. The difference could be huge, as astronomers might believe that a new star is appearing out of nowhere.

Nobody expected it

The nova was found during a daily inspection, while nobody had seen it coming. BRITE Operations Manager Rainer Kuschnig declared:

Suddenly there was a star on our records that wasn’t there the day before,

I’d never seen anything like it in all the years of the mission!

Professor Otto Koudelka, Project Manager at BRITE Austria, even emphasizes the importance of the discovery:

It is fantastic that for the first time a nova could be observed by our satellites even before its actual eruption and until many weeks later.

The team of astronomers reported the findings in a new paper called “Direct evidence for shock-powered optical emission in a nova.” It has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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